Photo courtesy of Kinny X. Li, CC BY-NC-ND
One of nature’s most impressive creations, the Grand Canyon cuts a mile deep into the Colorado Plateau in places, revealing a patchwork quilt of geologic history including Redwall Limestone and Vishnu Schist, a rock layer so dark that it resembles charred firewood. Tucked into this giant gash in the earth are innumerable natural and cultural treasures from natural rock amphitheaters that could hold music festival-sized crowds to Native American sites tucked under steep canyon walls.
It is difficult to imagine all of the treasures below while gazing down into the canyon from the national park’s popular South Rim. A coveted multiday rafting trip down the Colorado River through the canyon with an outfitter offers an amazing opportunity to experience stunning, little-visited places in the park without any real crowds. And there’s more than an amusement park’s worth of thrills in riding the river’s rapids along the way.
Our group did the O.A.R.S. six-day rafting trip from Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch, and it did not disappoint.
Note that it is recommended to book a space on an O.A.R.S. trip at least 12 to 18 months in advance.
The rapids on the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River are ranked on a “1-10” scale rather than the usual “1-5” whitewater scale. On our trip, we did 19 major rapids that were five or above on the Grand Canyon scale, including monsters like Hance and Sockdolager. My nerves would rise slowly every time we approached a major rapid, especially the ones that our guides had to scout from shore before running in our raft. As we approached, the roar of the river would get louder and louder, while it became noticeable that the river below the rapid was significantly lower. The raft would then slide down the tongue of the whitewater before smashing into a hoodoo of river water. The waves could be as tall as their ocean-based brethren. The chilly 50-degree water washing over the bow would inevitably wake you up no matter now early in the morning it was. Below the rapids, the murky Colorado bubbled and churned like a boiling pot of stew. Having survived and dealing with a serious dose of adrenaline, I’d be ready for the next set of rapids.
Photo by Stuart Thornton
As we floated downriver from Lee’s Ferry in our banana colored raft, the canyon walls grew higher and higher. Along the way, the guides steered our vessels to shore several times a day so that we could visit some of the canyon’s hidden treasures. These included ancient petroglyphs chiseled onto rocks, and slot canyons that tightened to stunning corridors as narrow as city alleyways. Standout sites included Redwall Cavern, an enormous eye-shaped opening in the rock that looks out on the river, and Nankoweap, a collection of Native American granaries high up on a cliff with a stunning view of the Colorado River lying in the base of the canyon like a twisted snake.
The Grand Canyon is as full of stunning stories as it is filled with beauty. There’s the classic tale of the one-armed explorer John Wesley Powell along with the lesser-known but incredible story of the first female commercial river runner Georgie White, who “swam” a 60-foot section of the Lower Colorado. There are the rapids and riffles named for the explorers that lost their lives on the river. Within Crash Canyon, river-goers can spot pieces of wreckage from a 1956 airliner collision that led to the formation of the FAA, while another section of the river was a proposed dam site that became known as the battleground of one of the largest environmental fights in our nation’s history. (Spoiler: The Sierra Club won, saving a section of the canyon from inundation.) Needless to say, your mind will be filled with a book’s worth of anecdotes and tales when you leave the river. But you won’t hear them if you go it alone at the South Rim.
Photo by Stuart Thornton
Every evening, we set up camp on different beaches that were all located just feet from the roaring river. O.A.R.S. coordinated with other outfitters so that our group was the only one in each campground. As the sun began to set, we were entertained by the changing beams of light projected on nearby cliff faces that rose above our heads like giant drive-in movie screens. After dark, the natural entertainment would continue as the stars came out and meteors would scratch the night sky. Even my father, who has trouble sleeping, would be lulled to sleep by the white noise of the passing Colorado.
Of course, the primary job of the river guides is to safely transport all of their passengers through the wild waters of the Colorado River. Our O.A.R.S. guides were all expert paddlers with insider knowledge of the waterway’s features and quirks, but their talents extended far beyond the boundaries of the river. Our lead guide Katrina Cornell holds a master’s degree in geology from M.I.T. and serenaded us each evening with heavenly vocals accompanied by her guitar strumming or mandolin picking. Guide Cliff Ghiglieri also entertained at night performing an eclectic batch of tunes from Blitzen Trapper’s “Furr” to the 1996 R&B hit “No Diggity.” He is also enrolled in a Ph.D. program in nuclear engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Then there’s Scotty Stevens, who has run over 250 rafting trips in the Grand Canyon and has a love for the river that is as deep as the canyon it is located in. The other guides on our trip included a paramedic, a family practice doctor, a geologist and a student working toward a master’s in geology. Being with such an accomplished crew was as inspiring as the landscape.
Stuart Thornton lives in coastal California and is the author of the Moon Coastal California Handbook, the Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast Handbook, Moon California Road Trip, and the Moon Monterey & Carmel Handbook.